Here and Now wants you to ask questions. After all, the latest HBO drama from Alan Ball, of Six Feet Under and True Blood fame, is a Sense8-style paranormal mystery, dropping hints about the unknowable forces that connect us all and prompting the audience to wonder just what they are. At least, that’s one of the many things Here and Now is trying to be—more on that in a moment.
The problem is that only a handful of these inquiries are ones the show is deliberately trying to set up, and even fewer have any hope of being answered. Based on the four episodes I’ve seen, Here and Now is a bizarre and puzzling cluster of decisions that rapidly coalesce into a glorious mess. Still, Here and Now is a mess I can’t stop thinking about, which gives it an automatic boost over the reams of identical auteur comedies and true crime dramas that populate the prestige tier of Peak TV. There are thousands of choices involved in getting any TV series to air, let alone a drama on a notoriously picky platform like HBO. Here and Now makes so many inexplicable ones that sussing out the reason behind them, or lack thereof, is its own kind of suspense—maybe not the kind Ball was looking for, but an effective kind nonetheless. Here are just some of the questions I had after the first episode:
What kind of show is this, exactly?
Here and Now opens on Ramon (Daniel Zovatto), a gay college student living and rocking a man bun in Portland, who’s been having some trippy dreams of late in which a strange woman calls his name, claws at her face, and speaks in a language he doesn’t understand. Such spooky imagery elicits the standard what’s-going-on TV intrigue: Who is she? What’s she saying? Why is Ramon important to her?
But then we meet Ramon’s family, each of them preparing for the 60th birthday party that gives the episode its framing device. Along with fashion professional Ashley (Jerrika Hinton) and “motivation architect” Duc (Raymond Lee), Ramon is one of three adopted children of philosophy professor Greg (Tim Robbins) and retired therapist Audrey (Holly Hunter); the couple also has a teenage biological daughter, Kristen (Sosie Bacon). Turns out that Here and Now isn’t just “The OA, but make it Pacific Northwest”—it’s also a blended-family drama in the vein of This Is Us. Under the best of circumstances, this would make for an awkward fusion of genre‚ but in the case of Here and Now, the forced fit means that almost none of the protagonists add up to recognizable people, or even consistent ones. This is but a small sampling of the follow-ups I had about the ins and outs of the Bayer-Boatwright clan’s daily lives:
What’s Duc’s deal?
On the one hand, he’s a New Age-y life coach type who gifts his dad a gym membership, billing exercise as the most effective antidepressant there is. On the other, he has no qualms about smoking cigarettes and doing coke with Ashley.
What does Ashley do, again?
There’s equally compelling evidence she’s a photographer, a fashion designer, and an e-commerce mogul. Photographers don’t employ full-time stylists, but busy business mavens don’t shoot their own models. So, what is the truth?!
Why would a teenager in 2018 try to catfish someone on … Facebook?
Kristen is a horny, bored high schooler who likes getting stoned and being a bitch to her mom, which is some #relatablecontent if I’ve ever seen it. Except it might be too relatable, because Kristen’s social media method of choice for e-stalking hot guys while pretending to be a busty blonde is the same one I used to post emo song lyrics as status updates more than a decade ago. Modern 17-year-olds are more likely to use Instagram, Snapchat, or some app invisible to anyone born in the 20th century than the same platform where their aunt shares time-lapse recipe videos by the dozen. Still, that’s not even close to the most ludicrous stunt pulls in the pilot alone. Bonus question:
Is it supposed to be funny, tragic, or both when a character loses their virginity while wearing a giant plastic horse head?
All these smaller quibbles snowball into more fundamental gaps in the Bayer-Boatwrights’ personalities and motivations. An outright fantasy can hand-wave away trivia like a job description, but a realist relationship show relies on finely observed details Here and Now too frequently skipped over. Greg, for example, is going through a just-past-midlife crisis that’s causing him to doubt his life’s work. But precisely what that work is—including the philosophy espoused in it—isn’t made clear enough for Greg’s self-doubt to register. The aforementioned horse-head sex is intercut with a depressive speech Greg makes to the guests at his own birthday celebration, making it impossible to either take the latter seriously or embrace the former’s comic potential. Here and Now is stuck in an uncanny valley that separates self-importance and satire.
But wait, what’s going on with Ramon?
Have you forgotten about those mystery visions yet? I certainly had, and sometimes Here and Now does, too, leaving them offscreen for long stretches at a time. Throughout and beyond the premiere, there’s almost no sense of what Here and Now’s supernatural elements are building toward, or what the audience is meant to anticipate from them. The dreams are creepy, but much of Ramon’s ESP revolves around encountering the number 11:11 in some pretty banal circumstances: on a digital clock, on the elliptical timer at the gym, on a laundry receipt. Even when these coincidences do boil over into the disruptive, their impact isn’t exactly catastrophic: “I’m hallucinating,” Ramon pronounces in the middle of a hallucination. He subsequently enters what is essentially the best-case scenario for someone experiencing a potential psychotic break, and gets mental health care at the urging of his overbearing but ultimately pragmatic and supportive parents.
So why is this neurotic, uptight family our way into whatever’s going down with Ramon?
This is, in essence, the million-dollar question. In the cliffhanger that ends the pilot, the viewer learns that the 11:11 phenomenon goes beyond just Ramon, suggesting that a broader ensemble cast might have been a better way into the larger plot. But that adjustment would also mean tossing out the glimmers of a shrewd-yet-empathetic dramedy that are the most promising part of the show.
Audrey is the crux of Here and Now’s insightful side, the wellspring of narcissism from which everyone else’s issues stem. A micromanaging former hippie, she’s aged into the kind of wealthy white woman who may disdain buttoned-up suburban types, but puts just as much stock in appearances. (It helps that she’s portrayed by one of the finest actresses of her generation or any other. Holly Hunter makes everything better, even a show that never proves itself worthy of her talents.) Her relationships with her children, and the toxic dynamics she’s fostered among them, are Transparent-worthy in their nuance and nastiness. Asked if growing up in his multi-culti family was “cool,” Duc responds, “It could’ve been, if we weren’t so aware of being advertisements for how progressive and evolved our parents were.” Underlying the Bayer-Boatwright kids’ hangups is the sneaking suspicion, or even tacit understanding, that Audrey doesn’t really love them—she loves the image of herself that raising them gives her, with Greg along for the ride. That’s a far more interesting seed of conflict than children’s birthday parties or numerology, with Audrey as a hilariously oblivious antiheroine who picks her own self-conception over her passion projects’ stated needs almost every time. When Ramon points out her obsession with his brand-new boyfriend is “condescending and weird,” she snaps back with a manipulative, “Would you prefer a mother who disowned you?”
I’d love to watch a streamlined, half-hour version of Here and Now that plays up this strain of dark humor—the rare searing spoof of white liberalism that actually centers characters of color. Ball is trying to get at something about what it means to live in a diverse and nominally tolerant society, and as it stands, Here and Now doesn’t succeed at that particular mission. In the meantime, most successes aren’t half as engaging as this show’s wildly ambitious failure.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.